Brian Óg's retired number five jersey painted on the wall of Steelstown's gym. (Pic: Lisa McGrath)
Brian Óg McKeever would've turned 30 last Saturday. Tragically, with the prospect of a stellar football career and life in front of him, he was taken far too soon, after losing his battle with leukaemia at the age of 17. His memory lives on in the Steelstown club named in his honour and by those who knew him. Michael McMullan writes...
There were two sides to Brian Óg McKeever, both fusing to leave a lasting legacy. The flame-haired warrior took his football extremely seriously, yet, on the flip side, didn't take himself too seriously off the field.
Among Steelstown's founder members was Derry's first ever All-Star, Anthony McGurk. In the days after Brian Óg's death, Steelstown chairman Michael Heffernan sat in the kitchen of Brian and Máire McKeever's home, tabling a proposal to rename the club as Steelstown Brian Ógs. It's just one testament. But it's a fitting one.
There is immense pride in their voice, as his parents speak of Brian Óg, the brother of their older sons Colm and Niall. Losing a family member shakes hard, especially one with so much left to give.
From chatting to Brian Óg's friends, the memories effortlessly flood back. The goosebumps rise on the neck as glowing tributes and stories roll off the tongue. His popularity is an immeasurable legacy. More than any medal collection.
Brian Óg McKeever would've turned 30 last Saturday.
Childhood friend and neighbour, Kevin Francis, said he would've rather risked a broken jaw in the Steelstown cause than face Brian Óg's wrath for pulling out of a tackle. As a leader, he inspired those around him.
Michael McLaughlin, who taught and coached him at St Brigid's/Coláiste Bhríde Carnhill, considered it 'an honour' to be asked to speak about Brian Óg.
Aoife Moore, one of his closest friends, said he was like nobody she ever met. A comedian, an agony aunt and a loyal friend, all rolled into one.
“He was very much his own person,” Aoife highlights. “Teenagers try to like other things and be like others. He wasn't like that, he lived his life in Celtic tracksuits and GAA gear.”
Brian Óg wasn't a follower. Anything but. While others spent their Friday and Saturday nights tippling on a bottle of cider or a bag of cans, Brian Óg refrained. Football was more important.
Conor McGoran, who played on the same Steelstown teams, said that in the 'simplest of terms' Brian Óg was the 'main man'. A warrior, with an 'innate ability' to make people laugh.
Another close friend Cathal Meehan was the brunt of many of Brian Óg's jokes. Brian Óg discovered Cathal English, as he was known, sleepwalking during a family holiday in Nice, roaring over him in the middle of the night. Brian Óg freaked out and demanded he tie himself to the bed for the rest of the holiday. The list of stories is endless.
His girlfriend, Clare Duffy, is now a nurse specialising in cancer care. Brian Óg is the reason. He shaped the direction of her life. An old-fashioned romantic, he'd hold hands and walk ahead to open a door.
How many budding sportsmen have a stamp collection? Brian Óg did. He'd have turned up to a dance night in Derry's Nerve Centre with a tracksuit on. It wasn't about blending in. Long hair and shirts, he said, made you look soft. He was a short back and sides man.
He loved hooped football socks and wore them up to his knees. He'd tell everyone it was the Gaelic boys' style.
Nearly everywhere he went, an O'Neill's football would be under his arm, not exactly the fashion accessory of choice in Derry city. The thud of the bouncing ball would've been heard around the corner before his wide, mischievous grin would come into view.
He loved dressing up at Halloween, as Willy Wonka or a Gladiator, with his mother Máire fashioning the costumes. He laughed like a hyena. While he lived in the city, he had a country head on his shoulders with an unquenchable thirst for GAA.
He was a gaeilgeoir and attended Bunscoil Cholmcille. During his illness, he sat and achieved a grade A in his Irish A-Level Oral exam in hospital. He'd go to mass every Sunday, not the norm for everyone his age.
On the Saturday nights in, during his illness battle, and with karaoke often the pastime of choice, he'd belt out Coldplay's Fix You.
There was so much behind the bravado of Brian Óg the footballer, something for everyone to learn from. He was a gift to everyone lucky enough to have known him.
The St Brigid's/Coláiste Bhríde teams trained at Leafair, which is far from a GAA stronghold. Just off Derry's Glengalliagh Road, it comprises two council soccer pitches.
Michael McLaughlin remembers Brian Óg, as the sole first year coming across from the Irish part of the school to join the school GAA team. He can still see Brian Óg walking past an abandoned car rammed into the goalposts. There was a strut and a determination about him.
McLaughlin was sorry to see him leave Carnhill after fifth year, but taking his game to the next level in the MacLarnon Cup with St Columb's Derry was the 'right move'. Brian Óg's number five school jersey still hangs in the Carnhill entrance hall.
He was deemed too young for the Derry minor panel when still an U16 and the following year he was tipped to make the panel. He had battled his way back from glandular fever that kept him out of the MacLarnon group stages.
His coach Eamonn Burns remembers Brian Óg playing 'a stormer' after coming on as a sub in their semi-final and held his place for the final.
Burns speaks of his pace with a great ability to read the game. His brain was 'a step ahead' allowing him to beat an opponent to the ball.
Within a month of his heroic display in a two-point final defeat, Brian Óg was diagnosed with leukaemia and missed out on the Derry minor squad.
“He would've played (county) minor and definitely would've made the U21s,” Michael McLaughlin states before pondering to himself if he'd have made the breakthrough to inter-county senior level.
“In my heart and in my head...I would say yes. To get on a Derry team from the city, you need to have that belief in yourself and Brian Óg had it.”
Brian Óg in action as captain of Derry's U16 Development squad.
McLaughlin recalls his 'charm and charisma' and how he instantly changed once he crossed the white line.
“The first thing I think of when I think of Brian Óg was the wide smile he had...he had a smile that would disarm you,” McLaughlin proudly states.
“He knew what he was about and was a brilliant relationship person. He seemed to get on great with everybody, until he walked onto a pitch and this warrior turned up.”
At Carnhill, McLaughlin had an unwritten rule. Pupils were only allowed out for soccer games if they also played Gaelic football. It was a two way street and Brian Óg committed to the soccer team. His sheer athleticism saw him break into the starting 11 as a dynamic winger. But GAA was always his number one.
“He roamed all over the pitch,” McLaughlin said of Brian Óg's role between centre back and midfield.
“That was him, giving his everything in every minute of every game. He had an energy about him, boys would connect with it and it would help drive them on as well.”
As a 15 year-old, he played on the Steelstown minor side that reached the 'A' championship final.
“He was great in the semi-final against Bellaghy and in the final against Dungiven, despite being so young,” recalls Neil Forester.
He marked Richard Ferris on his senior debut. Ferris, who managed Derry minors in what would've been Brian Óg's final year, placed a Derry flag on his grave on the morning of their championship clash at the nearby Celtic Park.
Michael McLaughlin, a Sean Dolan's man, recalls the club banter he'd have with Brian Óg. He'd tease Brian Óg about Steelstown's lack of titles.
“Who wants to be playing junior football,” Brian Óg would jibe back.
Carnhill needed the loan of Dolan's minor kit for a game with St Paul's Kilrea. After coaxing Brian Óg to wear the jersey, McLaughlin's next struggle was getting him to stand in the team photo.
“Eventually he did, with his hand over the Dolan's crest,” McLaughlin laughs. “It was one of Brian Óg's best ever games and I told him it was because of the kit.”
By that stage, Brian Óg was emerging into development squads and he'd later captain Derry at U16 level. His reputation and energy on the run made him a marked man. That day the Kilrea boys were 'hopping off' him as he carried the fight for underdogs Carnhill.
McLaughlin can still see one such tackle. After riding one challenge he was met by two more opponents before going to ground. Picking himself up and arms aloft, he gave a huge roar letting everyone know he still had the ball.
“We were six down,” McLaughlin states. “The Kilrea boys were looking at him like he was mad, our boys were looking at him like he was mad.”
That was the energy everyone around him fed off. For Brian Óg, it was always about the battle.
Every year since 2010, McLaughlin hosts an U14 school blitz in his memory, hosted at Steelstown with the McKeever family putting up the medals and food. It was fitting when Carnhill won it in the first year.
Kevin Francis grew up around the corner from McKeever's. They were best buddies and it was Brian Óg who coaxed him into Steelstown.
“Anything we did revolved around the O'Neill's ball,” remembers Francis.
After school they'd hop over the fence and into the nearby Templemore Sports Complex.
“Brian Óg would be in his shorts and t-shirt no matter what the weather was. To do otherwise would test his masculinity,” Kevin remembers.
They'd walk home under the shadow of darkness. To and fro the ball zipped. Kick-pass after kick-pass in search of perfection. Every minute of the evening was squeezed out.
Kevin Francis (back right) beside Brian Óg on a winning Steelstown team.
“Ógie always said we had to do 30 kick passes in a row and if you dropped the ball you'd start again,” Kevin recalls.
The target climbed to 40 and then 50. No matter how far the count rose, their stubbornness would crush the score to zero. Getting close wasn't an option.
Brian Óg was captain of their club team as it moved up the grades. He fostered a 'siege mentality' into the camp, that country boys saw them as soft because they were from the city.
“We had to go out of our way to prove that wasn't the case...he hammered that into us. He always had those leadership characteristics.” he added.
Off the pitch, Kevin describes him as 'witty and mad'. He wasn't a follower and would never 'break character'.
“If you were wearing a pair of jeans or a shirt that was in anyway flamboyant, he'd make a point of telling you,” he jokes.
“He had this reputation of being an upcoming star, but even outside the Gaelic circles he was popular around the streets. He made a point of not letting anybody walk over him or his teammates.”
Those he stood up to in the blue of Steelstown, were his team-mates for Derry as he took his leadership to another level.
Pier jumping in Buncrana on a Saturday afternoon was another piece in Brian Óg McKeever's puzzle. It was there, on the beach, he met girlfriend Clare Duffy.
“He was a bit more romantic than his Gaelic friends knew. That was a bit of him that nobody really knew, he was a big softie,” Clare states.
Brian Óg and girlfriend Clare Duffy.
“He would have been very much into holding hands...it's strange now (thinking back), he was so young and old fashioned.”
McKeever, as she called him, wangled a job in the red tourist buses in Derry. He'd save his money and buy Clare gifts, with their friend Aoife Moore among his fashion advisers.
“He would've been very generous,” Aoife remembers. “The rest of the girls would almost be waiting for a Monday morning at school in Thornhill, looking on with envy at outfits, jewellery and shoes.”
Clare's mother approved of Brian Óg. He didn't drink and had the discipline required to pursue a footballing career. Her daughter was safe in his hands.
“He had wee funny one liners, a very naturally funny person, but he was significantly more sensible than me,” Clare adds. “We got to go to Oxygen and festivals together. I was only going if Brian Óg was there and we went on holidays together.”
In April 2008, he was diagnosed with Leukaemia. After two rounds of chemotherapy, he got out of hospital for his brother Colm's 21st birthday.
Radiotherapy followed and in August, in another throw of the dice, his other brother Niall turned out to be a match for a bone marrow operation. At first it seemed to be a success.
Joe Brolly had visited him in hospital and arranged tickets to that year's All-Ireland football final in Croke Park. Brian senior fondly recalls the enjoyable day out at Croke Park, with a meal on the way home.
Days later, a routine check broke the worst news possible. Brian Óg's system was beginning to shut down and he had just six weeks to live.
“He was told he was going to die, he was very selfless in the things that he did,” Clare said. “He was a real old soul, it is hard to believe he had the attitude that he did.”
Aoife remembers how they arranged a rota of sorts among his friends to support Brian Óg's family in the hospital.
“We never wanted him to be alone on any of the days,” Aoife remembers.
“He was so thoughtful. Even when he was sick, he'd make sure we were all okay,” Clare adds. She was by his side every Wednesday afternoon and all weekend.
It coincided with weighing up their career choices and someone remarked to Clare that she'd make a good nurse. She followed up on the advice and is now working as a nurse. Because of Brian Óg.
“I now work with people in the same situation and am giving something back. Now I know what I know from where I work, it's hard to believe he did the stuff he did.”
On the day Mickey Harte broke his arm after a car crash, he was in the McKeever home later that evening and Clare speaks of them reciting the rosary together. Brian Dooher, also a past pupil of St Columb's Derry, brought the Sam Maguire Cup to the house.
Brian Óg was selfless, rarely letting his guard down during his suffering. Instead, he was on the one with the smile, assuring everyone he'd be fine. There was always a concern for others. None more so than two weeks before his death.
Against advice, he attended Clare's school formal. He was never going to miss it. Complete with spats, tuxedo and a white scarf, he dressed as Frank Sinatra and danced the night away. It was Clare's night and he was going to be there for her.
Returning home, his energy was spent. After struggling up the stairs, it would be his last outing. Brian Óg passed away at home surrounded by his family.
While there is sorrow in his loss, he leaves a considerable imprint. In his 17 years, he brought so much joy to the many he met.
Steelstown await the day they translate their three narrow intermediate final defeats into the elation of a first title. The number five jersey retired in his memory will be absent, but Brian Óg will be looking down on them. And smiling.
Son. Brother. Footballer. Friend. Legend. He will forever be remembered.
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